Advocates, district attorney discuss bail reform in Harris County

HOUSTON – Supporters of a proposal to overhaul Harris County's bail system gathered to answer questions from reporters Tuesday in an attempt to address what the move would accomplish and what it would not. 

The meeting took place in a conference room at Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner's Office in southwest Houston. It came in advance of a hearing scheduled for Oct. 28 in federal court. 

Bail system declared unconstitutional 

Harris County Commissioner's Court approved a proposed Consent Decree in July by a vote of 3-2. The decree is a settlement to a federal lawsuit that alleged Harris County discriminated against defendants of low income. The system kept people accused of low-level, often nonviolent, offenses in jail because they could not pay a bond. To the contrary, those with money to make bond were released. 

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled in April 2017 that the county's bail system violated due process and equal protection. 

Judge Rosenthal's decision challenged the county's yearslong system of holding indigent low-level offenders. 

How does the proposed Consent Decree work? 

Under the proposed consent decree, someone arrested for a low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor would be issued a general order bond or a personal recognizance bond. 

They would then be given a court date and released.

Supporters say there's evidence to back up the claim they'll show up for court. 

"What this settlement does is remedies that situation, which resulted in the mass pretrial detention of people charged only misdemeanor offenses and insures that if somebody is kept in jail prior to trial that it's only on very limited circumstances," said Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney, Civil Rights Corps, which represented the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. 

Under the current proposal, there are provisions for more violent offenses, such as domestic violence and DUI cases, as well as offenders on bond who get hit with a new charge. In total, there are six categories for which being granted a PR bond would first be reviewed by a judge. 

"That judge will have the authority to consider a wide range of conditions of release -- monetary or nonmonetary -- and that arrestee will be given a lawyer who will represent him or her at that hearing and the lawyer will be able to talk with an investigator and a social worker and make the best argument that's available for why that person can go home on the least restrictive conditions that will meet the government's interests," Rossi said. 

The proposal also allows a defendant to reset a court hearing up to two times, an ability critics warn will delay the legal process and lead to more money being spent, as a result. 

The proposed Consent Decree is estimated to cost $97 million. 

Critics: The proposal is a potential risk to public safety 

Critics of the proposal, as it stands, say it goes too far and more provisions need to be added before Rosenthal's approval.

Primarily, say those in opposition, the Consent Decree does not protect the public from people who are at high risk. 

"The new proposed settlement fails to protect the average person and police officer from repeat offenders and for people who simply refuse to show up in court," said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. 

Ogg, who ran on a platform of bail reform in 2016. Critics charge she reneged on her campaign promise. 

Ogg said her critique is not political. She maintains she still supports bail reform for low-level offenses. However, Ogg said repeat violent offenders already take advantage of judges who currently issue low bonds and PR bonds -- a claim echoed by members of law enforcement. 

"We cannot have a continued cycle where our officers are trying to keep this community safe, arrest people on violent felonies, who go in one door and out the other," said police Chief Art Acevedo, while briefing reporters at the scene of an apparent homicide Oct. 8. 

Acevedo then talked about the arrest of an offender with seven felony warrants, who was out on a low bond.

"We should not have people victimized by people who should have already been behind bars that were already captured, and they're getting in one door, and out the other," Acevedo said. 

Ogg echoed that point on Tuesday. 

"I fear that they will face the same offenders being released over and over and become frustrated and endangered because of the criminals being emboldened by the fact that even if they don't show up for court, nothing is going to happen," Ogg said. 

What happens next? 

The proposed consent decree still needs to be approved by Rosenthal in federal court. A fairness hearing is scheduled for Oct. 28. It will allow community leaders on both sides of this debate to weigh in on its pros and cons, leading up to a final approval. 

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.